Meg slipped the cigarette between her lips and smiled wryly as the students walked past her and into the building, each one offering her a different passive aggressive gesture, some more obvious than others–wrinkled noses, hands waving wildly at the fleeting smoke, and of course, there were the fake coughers.
Those were her favorites. She would offer her own passive aggressive grin in return and step even closer to the door, blowing the smoke at the opening as they would scurry to and fro. It was a petty move. She knew that. But that was why she’d taken up smoking in the first place. To piss people off. She’d never believed it made her look cool, nor had she ever enjoyed it.
She could still remember the taste the first time she’d lit one up. It had been like setting a dumpster on fire and then licking it. Her mother smelled it on her before she’d closed the door and dropped her school bag. She’d never yelled that loud at her before, but it had been worth it. She smoked after school for a week, coming home stinking and coughing every day, and every day, she and her mother had knockdown brawls over it. After a week, Meg was hooked, and after a month, her mother had given up fighting with her over it. Never one to pass up a passive aggressive moment, however, she often made snide remarks or coughed exaggeratedly so that her daughter knew just how disappointed in her she was.
Meg reveled in her mother’s disapproval, returning each sideways glance with an eye roll of her own, and responding to each faked cough with a fresh cigarette. Meg pulled a long drag into her lungs, holding it briefly before blowing it freely toward the students who exited the building with judgment in their eyes as they coughed pointedly into their hands. The fake coughers always got extra smoke blown in their face. It was a filthy habit, and she had already started to feel the effects on her health, but it was worth it as long as she could piss someone off every day.
She sucked down the tar, nicotine, and other poisons until all that was left was a shriveled butt which she flicked toward the door as she walked into the Chemistry department. The sterile smell of soap, bleach, and other cleansers filled her lungs and sent her into a very real fit of coughing, making her long for the warm, humid, and smokey air that she’d left behind outside.
She’d never wanted to go to college, but her mother insisted. Besides, there’d been nothing for her back home. Nothing except bad memories and high school dropouts waiting to knock her up. There’d never been a doubt in Meg’s mind what major she would pursue. Her mother had never allowed her to take art classes in high school, and now, she spent her days playing with paint and clay and charcoal. She was a smoking artist, and her mother was furious. To Meg, that was the epitome of success.
She dropped her bag on the floor in the hall opposite her chemistry lab between two other students and slid down the wall with her sketchbook in her hand and 311 blasting in her headphones. It was the third week of class, and the professor hadn’t been on time for class once, but she didn’t mind the extra time to work on her drawings. She waited for everyone to file into class before taking her usual seat in the back corner by the window, moving the headphones away from only one ear so that she could take notes and still listen to her music. The leaves on the trees outside the window had begun to change hues, and Meg focused on the first orange leaf of the season, trying to decide if it was closer to orange or tangerine in color.
Fall had once been her favorite time of year. It was the season of sweaters and scarves, of holidays and hot chocolates, of crunchy leaves and bright colors. That was before he’d left. Before her childhood disappeared. Now, the changing leaves only reminded her of the day her life had changed forever. Frost had been right. Nothing gold ever stays.
Meg followed the other students out of the building and immediately lit up another cigarette, allowing the wind to carry her thoughts away with the smoke and laughing bitterly to herself as the crowds moved away from her. She had never wanted to be an outcast, but even before she’d started smoking, she had been a loner, the weird kid. At least in college, she’d met others like herself. The weirdos and the loners. And the smokers. It seemed to her that half the art department smoked, and she never felt like an inconvenience around them. She felt normal for the first time in her life, and no matter what else was going on, she knew that she could escape to her little corner in the art department and sit at her potter’s wheel with her music blaring as she played in the mud. She made her way through the hordes of students, braving the Union to grab a donut and coffee and finally sitting down at her wheel with a satisfied sigh.
“Peace at last,” she said softly to herself as she connected her phone’s Bluetooth to the glaze and mud-covered speaker at her wheel. She sipped her coffee as she adjusted her stool and wheel in preparation.
“Hey! It’s Meg!”
Meg jumped slightly as a large, strong hand smacked her square between the shoulders.
“Oh! Hey Lars. How’s it going?”
Lars was the superstar of the art department. Every professor’s favorite student, and every female student’s crush. He was a master potter, painter, and sculptor, and despite his prom court good looks, he had a casual air that made everyone instantly comfortable, including Meg.
“Can’t complain,” Lars said, tucking his backpack beneath the drying racks behind Meg and sitting down on the stool next to her.
“Mind if I join you?”
“Well, I guess,” Meg shrugged and sighed dramatically. “I mean, if you must,” she added as Lars chuckled and began prepping his own wheel and clay. She turned the music down slightly and motioned to the speaker.
“Do you mind?”
“Nah, man. You got good taste.”
Meg smiled self-consciously and turned back to her wheel, pressing her slender fingers deftly against the clay as the wheel spun. She felt Lars watching her and forced her attention to the clay that rested upon the bat releasing her left foot from the pedal and scraping away the extra clay from the edges of the bat as it slowed, before pressing her foot down on the pedal once more and forming the clay with her hands. She watched as Lars cut a chunk of clay from the large brick between them and molded it into a ball. He tossed it onto the platter on his wheel with deft precision, and she nodded with approval as he shot her a self-satisfied grin.
His technique was excellent, but hers was better. She used a small rib tool to finish the plate and slowly pulled the wire beneath it, freeing it from the platter. As she gently flipped the plate and etched her name onto the bottom, Lars released his foot from the pedal on his own wheel to pop an air bubble with his pin tool, before looking at her with an appreciative smile.
“You have excellent technique.”
“I know,” Meg grinned as she replied and stood to place her plate on the drying rack.
“Aw, and she’s modest, too.”
Meg laughed and sat back down with another chunk of clay, carefully molding it and tossing it precisely onto the center of the tray.
“It’s soothing, isn’t it?” Lars asked her with his focus on his own pot.
“Yeah. It’s the only thing I can do that completely relaxes me.”
“The only thing?” Lars asked suggestively as he stopped and looked at her with one eyebrow raised and a coy grin forming on his lips.
Meg laughed and rolled her eyes, trying to ignore the increase in her pulse, but as she shifted, her foot pressed down too hard on the pedal, and her tray was sent spinning off the wheel with her partially formed pot.
“Frick!” she cursed under her breath as she stood to retrieve her tray and ball of clay. She sat down with the clay and began attempting to pick the dirt and hair out of it without pressing the debris deeper into the moist surface.
“Here,” Lars said as he stood and leaned over her shoulder with a sponge. He gently squeezed the water out of the sponge and over the ball of clay, before blowing softly on the clay and smiling at Meg as she held her breath.
“See? It just rinses right off.”
She forced air from her lungs and turned back to her wheel. “Thanks,” she managed between breaths.
“No worries. I’m always sending my platters and clay across the room. You gotta be prepared.”
“Aha, very funny,” Meg laughed despite herself.
The two worked in comfortable silence until Lars had finished his pot. He pulled the wire smoothly beneath it, freeing it from the tray and carefully etched his usual robot signature into the bottom.
“Okay, I gotta ask. What’s up with the robot?”
“Haha. It’s an inside joke from my first professor. He used to call me a robot, because I took to everything quickly and never seemed to get stuck.”
“Yeah. It is annoying.” Meg grinned.
“Oh, coming from you, that’s rich.”
Meg laughed and turned back to her wheel as she felt her cheeks heat up.
“Well," Lars said as he stretched his back. "I need a cigarette. Wanna take a walk with me?”
Meg grabbed her purse and followed him into the hallway. As the elevator doors closed in on them, Meg watched in the metallic reflection as Lars turned toward her, his left foot crossing over his right ankle as he leaned on his elbow and studied her. Meg felt suddenly out of step with Lars and pulled out her phone, pretending to check her messages until they reached the first floor and the doors slid creakily open once more.
They walked across the street and sat on a bench in the shaded part of the Quad, and Lars held a lighter up for Meg as she pressed a cigarette between her softly trembling lips.
“Every day I wake up and swear it’s going to be my last day as a smoker,” Lars said, picking up on her hesitance as he took the first puff from his tube.
“Same,” Meg lied.
She had no desire to quit smoking. She figured it was the same reason that people binge eat or over drink.
“Actually, that’s a lie,” Meg said, surprising herself with her sudden openness.
Lars pulled the cigarette from his mouth and turned in his seat to face her with a quizzical expression.
“You don’t want to quit?”
“I mean, yeah. I guess. It’s a filthy habit, and I know it’s going to kill me one day. But, whatever, right?”
Lars laughed at her and took another drag. “When did you start?”
“Twelve. After my big brother.”
“Oh, yeah. He still smoke?”
“Nah. He never kept it up, really. Just at parties and to piss off my old man.”
Meg snorted a laugh. “Yeah. I can relate.”
“Who were you pissin’ off?”
“My mom. Dad smoked. I always hated it, but after he left, I started.”
“Meh. It’s all good.”
Meg took a long drag from her cigarette, her focus fading as memories came flooding back to her. Bad memories. Good memories. Memories from before her father had left.
A small, amber-colored leaf slowly floated down to the ground in front of her, and Meg closed her eyes as a long-buried happy memory of her and her mother playing in the piles of fallen leaves suddenly resurfaced and knocked the breath from her.
Where had her father been that day? When the leaves had lost their green and the air filled with the scent of cinnamon and peppermint. Who was it who had held her hand when she had to start a new school? And who was it who had knitted her a new hat each year when the air had lost its warmth? Why had she always felt the need to punish her mother for what he had done?
It hadn’t been her mother's fault. Not really. She wasn’t the one who’d left to start another family. And she was not the one who had decided Meg was not worth staying for.
“Maybe it wasn’t her I was punishing,” Meg whispered aloud without realizing.
“Huh?” Meg snapped her eyes open as his voice jolted her from her ruminations.
“You said, ‘maybe it wasn’t her you were punishing.’ You mean your mom?”
“Oh, sorry. I guess I was thinking out loud.”
Lars smiled at her softly as he pressed his butt into the pavement at his feet, before placing it back into the carton. Meg took one last drag from her own, looking at it differently for the first time as she exhaled the smoke far away from herself and Lars, feeling a lifetime’s worth of resentment leave her. She put her cigarette out on the pavement as Lars had and followed him back into the arts building, tossing the remaining butt into the trash can at the entryway.
“You know, most girls punish their moms in a very different way,” Lars said jokingly as they walked through the double doors.
“Oh?” Meg smiled, knowing his thoughts.
“Yeah. You know? One filthy habit for another…”
Meg chuckled at him as she reached into her purse and pulled out a pack of gum, offering him a piece. He took a slice and slipped it into his mouth, balling up his wrapper and tossing it into the trash next to her.
Lars gave her a wry smile, surprising her as he reached out and grasped her wrist firmly but gently and pulled her to him. She could smell the mint and menthol from his gum and cigarettes on his breath, and as he leaned toward her, she pressed her gum beneath her tongue, wondering if he could smell her cigarette on her as well. As he slowly slipped his tongue between her lips, she tasted the minty sweetness of the gum, hoping that’s all he tasted on her own tongue.
As Lars pulled away from her and her heart began to slow, Meg’s eyes flicked down to the pack of cigarettes in her hand and then to the trash can next to her.
Maybe it was a good day to give up smoking, after all, she thought.
Perhaps, she would exchange one bad habit for another. Though, she was pretty sure she was going to find him harder to quit than cigarettes.
Art & Words ©Lena Folkert 2023. All rights reserved.
Previously printed in the Mosaic Literary Magazine by NSU.
Thank you for reading this short piece of literary fiction. If you enjoyed the story, please let me know in the comments and share with your friends! <3
About the Creator
Alaskan Grown Freelance Writer 🤍 Lover of Prose
Former Deckhand & Barista 🤍 Always a Pleaser & Eggshell-Walker
Lifelong Animal Lover & Whisperer 🤍 Ever the Student & Seeker
Traveler 🤍 Dreamer 🤍 Wanderer
Happily Lost 🤍 Luckily in Love
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Original narrative & well developed characters